Full disclosure – I’ve been a huge fan of all things Middle Earth since I was ten years old and read The Hobbit on a family road trip. I viewed the Lord of the Rings trilogy repeatedly in theaters and devoured any behind-the-scenes and extended material that I could find. Then finally, after years in development limbo, The Hobbit finally went into production, changing from a two-part set into a trilogy along the way. And after the largely successful first film and the long set-up of the second, I went into Battle of the Five Armies prepared for an entertaining payoff.
Unfortunately, despite several great moments, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies never feels like the finale of an epic story. Rather, many times it feels like the filmmakers are mechanically hammering the moments that they need to without putting the heart and narrative effort into them required for a real emotional payoff.
First though, there are a handful of moments that play out beautifully. Most of these are between Bilbo and Thorin, by far the best-developed characters of the trilogy. Even while being driven mad by dragon sickness, Thorin’s friendship and trust in Bilbo shines through, as in one scene when the hobbit tells him about a giant acorn that he’s saving to plant in the Shire. Martin Freeman’s performance is particularly complex in this scene, as Bilbo’s genuine affection for Thorin fights against his worry for his friend and the guilt from knowing he has to betray him for everyone’s sake. These kinds of moments between the pair lead up to Thorin’s death scene being one of the most effective scenes in the film, one of the few moments that feels like a real loss is occurring. Again, Freeman’s genuine performance makes a huge emotional impact in the moment. Thranduil, played by Lee Pace, also provides a much-needed jolt of energy every time he’s onscreen. The elven king is easily one of the most twisty and entertaining characters in the film.
Had the rest of the film contained similar moments between characters, developing the dwarf company and focusing on more intimate moments, then the huge action sequences that drive the vast majority of BotFA might have felt earned. However, without the required character development in place, I felt no real sense of danger or urgency throughout the endless battles. What should have been the most heartbreaking deaths instead only felt like small hiccups in the story. Even Bilbo’s departure from the dwarf company at the end of the film didn’t pack much of an emotional punch – most of the individual dwarves hadn’t been developed enough to truly feel as though Bilbo was losing something by returning home.
There might’ve been more time for the crucial character development that was missed had there not been quite so much added material, which was easily the weakest portion of the film. The relationship between Tauriel and Kili still feels forced, added just for the sake of a romance that the story didn’t need. Although the exploration of Bard and his family gave him motivation beyond what the book provides, the rest of the Lake Town residents and ensuing shenanigans feel more like broad farce than part of an epic story, especially the entire character of Alfred. And the much-touted scene where the White Council goes up against the spiritual form of Sauron is possibly the most painfully awkward scene of the film. Though there is some visually appealing swordplay, the ending of the scene ultimately looks more like a video game boss fight rather than an important link between two trilogies. Ultimately, most of the material that was added to create a trilogy out of the two originally planned films simply doesn’t feel worth it.
However, BotFA still has some visually stunning moments. The settings are as beautiful as ever, and the fighting choreography is excellent. The way that Peter Jackson decided to portray the dragon sickness onscreen provides a wonderfully disorienting scene. And the costumes and attention to detail are as thorough as ever. I only wish that the production team had continued to use mostly practical effects for the orcs. The evil hordes here seem less realistic than the armies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Overall, The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies does the job it has to do. All the various plot threads are neatly tied up by the end of the movie; the dwarves have their home back, Legolas is set on the path to eventually befriend Aragorn and become part of the Fellowship, Sauron is banished to brood in Mordor, and Bilbo has returned to the Shire, transformed by his experiences. However, it’s the final scenes with Bilbo that make you wish the films had spent less time on extra characters and more of it with the nominal hero of the story. Martin Freeman’s layered and enjoyable performance truly makes BotFA worth watching. However, as a long-time fan of the franchise, the movie never truly felt like a fulfilling finale.